Who is that woman smiling and waving as she bears down on you in the supermarket? Can’t remember where you put your car keys, or how to get to that new cinema? We all worry about our memory (or lack of it!), but experts say new studies in recall and spatial awareness prove you can give your brain a reboot. More than that, facial recognition, or lack of it, losing items and difficulty navigating town and cities often go hand in hand, although experts still don’t fully understand why. But by practising a few simple techniques, we can all acquire instant – or pretty fast – recall. “It’s all about consciously training your mind,” says psychologist Professor Kenneth L. Higbee, author of Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It.
“ We’ve found that identifying and remembering has more to do with recognition and linking skills, not just pure recollection,” he says.
I don’t recognise people I’ve met before – it’s so embarrassing!
Police super-recognisers are specialists who identify repeat offenders, and the techniques they use can teach us a lot. “These individuals don’t necessarily have fantastic memories,” says Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the Central Forensic Image Team in the Metropolitan Police. “But they look at faces in a different way. They’re highly observant and use whole-brain recognition techniques to remember a face – this means noticing tiny details that ordinary people miss, emotional facial cues, environment, shape and colour recognition. They’re usually very curious about people and interested to know what makes them tick.”
How to do it
When you meet someone, make direct eye contact but also look at their eyebrows, hair colour and shape of their mouth. Notice any scars or moles. Now create picture of them seated on your sofa at home. Note where you are in the room with them, e.g. next to a table, near a window, in front of a picture. Finally, take a mental snap of them in this location.
Before you go to any social gathering with people you don’t know, ask your host who will be there, then Google guests you can’t remember to see what they look like. Get there first and asked to be introduced (or reacquainted) with everyone.
Do this with everyone you meet. After the party or other event, at home, go back over who you’ve met, picture where you saw them and remember their names. Picture the whole room in your head and where people were standing. These techniques mean your memory will store it and you’ll recall it next time you meet them.
I can remember faces but not names, help!
Use the clench technique
Make a fist with your right hand when you’re being introduced to someone, repeat their name and make eye contact (“Great to meet you, Sarah”). This will activate the left frontal lobe of your brain, which is used to create memories, and associates visual and verbal clues. To recall their name when you meet them again, clench your left fist to activate the right frontal lobe. This side is associated with recalling memories. It will improve your memory rate by at least 15 per cent, according to Dr Ruth Propper, associate Professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who has studied the subject.
I can’t recall where I parked in a huge retail car park
Try the “trace and lock” method
After parking, stand beside your car for a few seconds. Trace an imaginary line from your position to the building entrance. Walk to the entrance. Just before you go inside, look back at your car to retrace the imaginary line. This will “lock in” the memory of the path back to your vehicle. Most large car parks have locator signs (you are not alone with this problem!), but reinforce your memory of the location by creating a visual hint. For example, if your parking space is 2B and the sign is red, imagine two red balloons attached to your car.
I can’t remember whether I switched off the iron…
Try a verbal approach
This thought usually pings into your mind just as you’re boarding a flight. Instead, as you leave home, try using the verbal instruction technique. Say out loud to yourself as you switch things off: “I’ve switched off the iron now, I don’t need to do that again,” or “I’ve locked the door now, so I don’t need to do that again.” The fact is that hearing your own voice confirming an action helps lock it into your memory. And avoids a meltdown miles from home!
My sense of direction is terrible!
Nina Donohoe, an occupational therapist specialising in spatial awareness and author of Steps in The Right Direction, says we all have grid cells in our brains, which are special neurons that allow us to understand our position in space. In 58 per cent of us, these light up strongly when we’re facing north, so we instinctively know how to orientate ourselves, but in others, the signal is weaker. However, you can improve your inner satnav with these tips:
Navigating while driving…
Don’t rely on your satnav all the time – use it as a tool, but train yourself to do without. Use Google Maps Street View to do a “virtual journey” of your route before you set off – yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s also highly effective. Practise it until you know it and do it in reverse too, to help you get home. Note significant markers like a tree or a shop. The more you do this, the better you’ll get.
On a journey of any kind…
Look where you’re going. It sounds obvious, but most people who claim to have no sense of direction aren’t really that interested in the journey itself. Instead of chatting with your companion, notice where you are in relation to the roads and landmarks around, make connections to buildings and streets and whether you’re turning left or right, and even where the sun is (if it’s out).
On a walk in the country…
Worried you won’t find your way back? Look over your shoulder every 40 or 50 paces. Take a mental snapshot of the landscape, try to note landmarks, such as gates, unusual-shaped trees or church spires. Your unconscious memory will do the rest of the work for you and put the jigsaw together, helping you recognise your route on the way back.
I’ve lost my keys… again!
Michael Solomon, psychologist and author of How To Find Lost Objects, has these rules to stop you losing things, and finding them when you do:
When you arrive home from somewhere, adopt the ten-second rule. Stop at the door. Where is everything? Keys, umbrella, handbag, glasses and phone? Don’t walk around putting them down or in a pocket randomly. Put them down in one place and move away.
Can’t find it? Don’t look for it. It’s not lost – you are. There are no missing objects, only unsystematic searchers. Stand still and think. No frenetic running around. Blind panic stops us finding anything.
Look in the Eureka Zone. Objects, on the whole, don’t travel more than 18 inches from their home.
Look under your keyboard, on the floor or under sofa cushions for your fountain pen or glasses.
Don’t keep checking the same spot, once you’ve checked it thoroughly (the Look Once, Look Well principle). Retrace your steps until you’ve exhausted everything you’ve done that day.
If you still can’t find it, perhaps it wasn’t you. In other words, someone has borrowed your umbrella or moved your car keys. Now you can ask others.
If you’ve systematically covered all bases and you can do without it for a short while, sleep on it. Memories often surface overnight.